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Leadership & Culture

Why Traditional Satisfaction Surveys Fail

Written by:Alexander Kjerulf
Published on: 04 December 2019 Reading time: 5 minutes

Many companies currently do staff satisfaction surveys, usually once a year. Conducting, analyzing and acting on these types of surveys can take up a lot of time and money. I’ve rarely seen that job satisfaction surveys have a positive impact on company culture and I believe that the typical approach used by most companies is fundamentally flawed. Here is why:

 

1: They have too many (wrong) questions

 

Recently, a client sent me their annual job satisfaction survey with 138 questions (I’m not kidding) and among them were gems like:

  • How satisfied are you with the lighting at your workstation?
  • How satisfied are you with the temperature in the workplace?
  • Do you experience any problems with noise in the office?

 

Surveys can consist of 100+ questions which take a long time to complete. I have visited several workplaces where employees complain about “survey fatigue.”

 

2: They’re conducted too rarely

 

Typically, staff satisfaction surveys are done annually which means that there might be a huge lag from when an issue arises in the workplace until the moment when it’s discovered and addressed.

 

This makes staff satisfaction surveys nearly useless.

 

3: They measure satisfaction, not happiness

 

One major flaw is that these surveys don’t actually measure how happy people are at work – they measure their job satisfaction. While happiness and satisfaction are certainly related concepts, they are not the same thing.

 

Basically, job satisfaction is what you think about your job when you weigh all the pros and cons. It’s a rational judgement.

 

Happiness at work is how you feel about your job. When you are at work, do you mostly experience positive emotions (pride, happiness, gratitude, etc) or mostly negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, etc)?

 

Of the two, happiness is much more important and more relevant. Why? Because happiness affects employees’ job performance, health and general well-being more than satisfaction.

 

4: A big time lag between surveys and results

 

Here’s how it goes in many workplaces:

April: The survey comes out
May: Results are due
August: Results become available
September: Departments and teams start following up on results

 

In many cases, months pass from when employees fill out the survey until they see the results. By that time, no one remembers the survey questions any more and the results will most likely be outdated before people even see them.

 

This is the age of instant gratification and instant data, so why should we wait for so much time to pass between the survey and results?

 

5: Survey creates positive expectations – but nothing happens

 

“I have never seen any step taken based on a job satisfaction survey.”
– Comment on my blog

 

I recently talked to a client that conducts an annual job satisfaction survey. They told me that every year for the last 5 years, the same handful of teams in this company have scored very low on the survey. Everyone knows why: the managers of these teams are bad managers. And yet, nothing has been done about it and these teams continue to be miserable.

 

Asking employees about their current situation creates an expectation that the workplace will act on the survey results. Why conduct the survey, if the workplace doesn’t act on the results?

 

And yet, survey results often aren’t acted upon, leaving employees with the (often correct) impression that this is a sham process and that the company wants to create the illusion that it cares when really it doesn’t.

 

6: No perceived value for employees

 

All of this means that responding to the survey becomes a chore for employees who can’t see the value of the survey and have no expectation that it will improve working conditions in any way.

 

Expectedly, this again leads to very low response rates in many workplacesWhy should they waste time filling out the survey, if they can’t see the point?

 

7: Negative focus

 

I gave a keynote at a bank recently and just before I went on stage, an HR consultant presented the results of their latest employee satisfaction survey.

 

While their overall results were quite OK, he spent 95% of his presentation talking about the areas where the scores were low compared to other banks or where they had fallen since the last survey.

Looking at the numbers, I could see several areas where the results were really good. However, I noticed that zero time was spent on examining what those areas were and what the company was doing right. Also, while some teams were clearly much happier than others, they got no attention – all the focus was on the lowest-scoring teams.

 

Of course, a survey should be used to pinpoint problems so they can be fixed. But if that’s all it’s used for, the company misses a huge opportunity to identify best practices and spread them by learning from the best performing areas and teams.

 

8: Cooking the books

 

“I had worked for a bank for many years that used annual Gallup surveys. As a member of the management, it was my job to inform the employees about the questions they would be asked pertaining to their satisfaction with their jobs, co-workers, management, and the company’s values.”

 

It was drilled down to me that these marks needed to be the highest (10 out of 10) in all categories to ensure maximum “satisfaction.” In reality, if you had worked for the company long enough to take a second survey, you knew that you’d better just put a 10 to avoid the drawn-out action planning after the branch results were reviewed.” (comment on my blog)

 

I recently heard of a company that wanted to do really well on the Great Place to Work national rankings, which are determined in part by a satisfaction survey among employees. So before the survey ran, the management sent out an email to everyone saying how important it was for the company to score well and how it would really help their image and business results. But, hey, no pressure!

 

I have seen several ways that management can influence the survey results. In some companies, the results are not presented to the whole company before HR and top management have had a chance to see them first and remove any results that are deemed too “explosive” or bad for the corporate image.

 

Taking into account all the things mentioned above, it is obviously time we focused on some new principles on how to measure how our employees feel and what they think at work.